TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1980

Urban Nature: The Work of Maria Nordman

Not to know how to orientate oneself in a city doesn’t mean much. But to get lost in it, as one gets lost in a forest, is something to learn about.
—Walter Benjamin

THOSE PEOPLE IN NEW YORK who for hours stop and observe, through specially cut windows, the construction of a skyscraper or of a new building; or those people in Los Angeles who love to cover long distances to observe the nature of the urban suburbs from the automobile or the bus, or who stay seated on boulevard benches looking at the traffic and the city’s happenings, today appear to me to be the people who are nearest to one of the recurrent themes in “art”: natural beauty.

Like spectators and visitors to museums and art galleries, they have intuited or understood how natural nature has become insipid and insignificant in comparison to industrialized nature and how art corresponds to a moment of leisure with dignity, during which to pass the time of day—sitting or standing, at one’s ease, looking through a frame or opening—contemplating an aspect of nature, that is, of the city. In fact, their custom of placing themselves facing a crowded road or a flow of traffic, a slum or an industrial area, as suggestive zones capable—like a forest or a beach—of countless expressive and communicative facets, testifies to the naturalization of the city, and to the urbanization of nature. Since the illusion of nature is a romantic illusion, today unreal, and conversely, since the city is everywhere, the need for contact and the search for a principle of individuation cannot address a natural context (reduced to a metaphysical entity), but must rather apply to a real concrete territory which, today, without alternatives, is the urbanscape.

At the same time, if a constant in art is extreme appearance, therefore extreme integration—without halo, with the real—how is it possible not to see in any “window” the place of the maximum integration? And how is it possible not to accept as a result of one’s own perception the historical continuity between the landscape, the worked-on cultivated landscape, and the “landscape” produced by urbanism? If, then, antitheses to society do not exist—nature is an archeological remain, totally anachronistic to contemporary life, and art is an illusion which must die in the appearance—why continue to produce and to add images and icons when it is possible to immerse oneself in the city which is more than ever the subsoil of life and the field of “natural beauty”?

However, the answers, which tend towards a substantial endorsement of the encumbering bulkiness of the city, will be extraneous to a process of imitation. They will not be determined, as in Pop and Minimal art, by recourse to the objectification “in effigy” of the advertising poster or the architectonic volume, or by a practice of iconic cancellation which puts the totality of the urban context at serious stake. If the idealistic arrogance which identifies the destiny of art with domination—through mimesis, figural or abstract—over reality, is to be cancelled, the only chance for a maximum degree of presence is non-presence or non-existence.

The politics of presence and of superior detachment, in fact, reveal the presumption of being above time and above space while the historic moment lives in absence, that is, in the complete trusting of itself—without reservations—to the historical material content of its own context. If the assertion by Adorno is true, that “works of art let themselves be experienced with greater truth the more their historic substance is the same as that of those who experience them,”1 why place oneself above it all with the addition of new images rather than adapt oneself to what is already there? The fetishistic character of art must dissolve. Art must instead be hostile, be violent to and increasingly collide with, the person who looks at and experiences it.

It follows that one cannot dispose of and saddle experience on others, and even less so can one render experience void of historical and contextual tensions. The experience of others is not to be stolen or considered extraneous but left in its place, bound to the real, so that the person and his contextual moment can remain indissoluble. It is impossible to add fetishes and continue to insist, with the alibi of the construction of art, on the same places and on the same social groupings. Rather, the particularized areas, like museums and galleries, must be dissolved in order to improvise experiences—one next to the other, in environments without doors, without preestablished frames or openings. The demand of these particular places and of their public is that of an absolute “truth,” where the dynamics of appearance does not become experience but is dominion. There is no distinction in these places between the objects and the building. Such a concrete, continued image fights against the disturbance of nothingness which in Hegelian thought is precisely the totality of being. The shrewdness of art lies instead in the disconcertion and in the disturbance of nothingness; it works on this to search out a system of connection and interchange with history, where the observer is included as protagonist. If the destiny of art lies in absence and in nothingness, their disclosure promises the maximum of intensity. But to follow this praxis, what is it that materializes? A perception of the complexity and the density of the entire social complex—the historic experience. It is wrong to continue to construct art from the top when it can belong to each passerby and each inhabitant of the city—of the world, by now become a nonstop city.

The attempt to avoid the damaging effect of art formation, superior and a priori, does not mean crystallization of objective substance in a rigid and stable entity. Rather it seeks to verify the changes in the ways of experience of substances. The world of frozen images, put into effect with arranged forms and control, has to enter crisis in order to leave the place to an immediate means of experience, once more remembering with Adorno that “the immediacy of esthetic behavior is simply an immediacy in respect to the universally mediated.”2

This convergence of elements which reproduce appearance and historical context, nothingness and immediacy, seems to me to be the common denominator of the activity of Maria Nordman. Since 19673 these components appear indissoluble and their cohabitation makes her work dynamic. Her research intuits the possibility of an artistic objectification which only survives in the future and in the process of experience. For Nordman, the person is not distinguished from his/her context and the environment is not a product, planned a priori by a demiurge, but a contingent construction and work,4 by a human being who does not exist autonomously in respect to society. There is no renunciation then, nor consequent sublimation towards society as immersion in it and in its horrible “beauty.”

Let it be made quite clear that it is not a question of total interlacing—excessive realism is unrealistic—which abolishes art or renders it absolutely necessary. Her work deals with making double existence understood, as a social fact and a personal fact, with making, in an individual way, the experience of society.

The indication is to be expressed in a concrete objective, urban way. There is the possibility of declaring the objectivity of the world as subjectivity to each person: “Everything which is there is you, really you.” Internal and external context, environment and person are fully connected, inseparable, they literally live one in the other and one off the other. One doesn’t speak, however, of a criterion by which art “would massage” the perception of people and would have as its aim a noticing of their reactions. Such procedure has the self-negation of the observer as its aim, virtually extinguishing the observer in the work. For Nordman, a self-placing, rather, is solicited of the subject who submits himself/herself as a stranger and succeeds in putting his/her experiential difference in the place of the substance of the world (the city).

Maria Nordman constructs “conditions,” not environments, within which the theme is the resistance of the subject who does not model himself/herself on art but reacts to it because of its concreteness—that is, its urban reality. Since the greater part of relationships with the city comprises the orientation between indoors and outdoors, between union and separation, between distance and vicinity, the spaces to “seize” or to “grasp” are equivalent to the position assumed by the person vis-à-vis the city.

Now it is evident that for the “citizen” the distinguishing signs of identity depend on the urban constellation, that is to say, they are subject to the meeting place—to exist is to belong to collectivity—between structure and life. These—in having to be spaces where the human being maintains a situation of equilibrium between the private and public sphere—are none other than the buildings and the streets, connected by tenuous and invisible links of windows and of doors.

Maria Nordman works in a dialectic which defines the existence of the variants of human experience, natural and artificial, when she produces “conditions” where personal participation is objectified within the definition of urban space.

It is useful to remember Nordman’s “process of socialization” regarding the Los Angeles context. She has arrived at her own research through her experiences of this city, and the result—the politics of absence or of disconcertment provoked by nothingness—lies precisely in the recognition of known things. Among these, one of the values which, to the European eye (Nordman is an American artist of East German extraction) emerges as a vital component of the cultural tradition of the Californian metropolis and is therefore an integral part of the personality of its citizens: the lack of difference between sense of the inside and sense of the outside. In Los Angeles,5 because of an architecture of wood and stucco, the living installations do not seem to isolate the people from the street. The houses are slender boxes or bungalows on lawns, hills or beaches, and the walls are wooden membranes through which the signs of the city penetrate. These fences are diaphragms which assume the task of resisting the sun, the wind, the rain, the light and the artificial light diffused by the urban center. For this reason, every skin, even if independent, because of the incorporeity of the walls, urges the occupier to consider the limits of space only in relationship to the values of transparency. Accordingly, the residential box, more than a device for defense, is a perceptive screen in respect to the sounds, the heat, the light and the images of the city and of nature. It is a piece of extremely complicated paraphernalia of unthinkable optical and tactile complexity through which to live the events and the incidents from the outside to the inside and vice versa. And as the outside is never excluded but sensitizes every movement and every distance covered by the occupier, the outside/inside interaction, induced by Californian architecture, produces a concept of space that is expressed, not by wall limits but by places of reception: doors and windows. From the inside, escapes are multiplied towards the real outside, the natural and urban events, and from the outside, a re-sucking takes place, to the inside.

Since 1970, Nordman’s working place has been situated in what once was a storefront and is now a room with sidewalk access, with windows and a glass door that open onto Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. The inside space is isolated from passers-by and the traffic by thin panes of glass so the surface for osmosis between inside and outside is at maximum. The only separation is given by the specular glass which reflects the outside and allows one to see from the inside without being seen. The window and the glass door indicate, as in Le Corbusier and in Richard Neutra (in ’69 Nordman worked as an editorial assistant for Neutra), the continuity and the freedom within, the way across which the inside extends itself to the outside, projecting the space of closing surfaces outside, that is, the ethereal surfaces of the wall openings. Many works by Nordman are constructed on this transparent plane of connection between inside and outside, understood both as source of light and sound from the outside to the inside as well as the place of vindication of psychical and emotional autonomy.

Maria Nordman’s work defines itself between the polarities of inside outside: the light acquires full space-time expressiveness as it intervenes, both interpreting in space and furnishing an interpretation of that space; the pane “fixes” the crystallization of the urban flow, framing the relationships between citizen and city.

The recourse to light emerges in the projects of 1967 to 1970. In one, luminous planes, angled at 4°, pass through in volumes defined by ceiling, floor and four walls thereby “giving two dimensions toward the person by light.” In another project the light investigates the flexibility and the distributive properties of volumes determined by ceiling, floor and mobile walls, painted in black. In both cases, the architectonic box is essential, and the light shows the simultaneous relationship between space and being in movement (person or wall), while its emptiness but fullness (there does not exist an empty space—it is defined in this way because it lacks objects or is not occupied by materials, therefore it is always full) is designated by the entrance of the dynamic of light which forms planes and masses. And from the moment that it is no longer used to illuminate materials and objects, light strengthens the plastic value of the emptiness (fullness) but alters the structure of the place which is also modified by the movement of people and by the changing of time. One of Nordman’s 1972 projects anticipates that: “a person is surrounded by a space which defines itself as a void. The sound of the surrounding landscape enters it. But the larger section stays a constant void. A place for one person, for 15–20 minutes.”

According to the antidecorative stand which, from Adolf Loos to Mies van der Rohe, interlaces the history of architecture, the quantity of information transmitted by pure volume may be considerable but still not be exhausted; it is possible to arrive at the imperceptible: the vibration of the air renders the location of a cube of light and sounds perceptible to the human organism. One enters it and becomes an “interlocutor.” In the integration one perceives the appearance of one’s own participation,6 as a body immersed in a material or in an immaterial. This implies that the human being, in the situation of observer and of participant, is broken up into fields in which something happens (sound, light, image) and the breaking up means that the human being is a multiple material which bends in and bends out. Since 1971, in the Pico Boulevard room, Nordman has used a raised floor, level with the window, and then invited people to visit it. (In 1972 the conditions of the platform, the window and the door were moved to the space next door.) Before entering, the visitor sees his or her image reflected in the door and the window. Because the entrance is level with the street, one sees oneself “in the street” as image and body, as spirit and flesh. Having entered the space, painted white and devoid of objects, one can move or be still. In walking, one “feels” like the subject, the “actor” of the surfaces and the volume; in stopping, one’s attention is gradually led towards the only optical focus, the window, through which one looks at the image and the spectacle (the opening is both frame and scene) of the very busy Pico Boulevard. And he or she is once again “in the street” even if from the inside, rendering one’s subjective system equivalent to objective whole.

Every detail7 (person, space, vision, art, environment, street, light, etc.) makes itself relative to the whole, in such a way as to be unable to consider itself autonomous and independent but in unstable and momentary equilibrium with that historical and contextual whole which includes every detail. In the same way, in the 1973 work at the Art Gallery of the University of California at Irvine, the process which channels the light—a reduced entrance, a wall route and a reflecting vertical that produce a luminous plane which, depending on the diagonal, divides the space of the gallery into two distinct rooms—does not, however, negate the other “details.” On the contrary, the awareness of a detail strengthens the singularity of the other details. For whoever enters and leaves, the sounds and noises of the university campus, the trees and the mountains which surround the building—everything, in other words, the natural and human events which comprise it, all find “space.”

This research of homeostasis or compensation for tension between the totality of the elements or the details—even if with effects which include the structuring of luminous planes and volumes—also reappears in later works, starting from the symmetrical quantity of light and dark in the Toselli Gallery, 1974; in “a room for one person” in San Francisco,1975; and in the octagonal space of the 1976 Venice Biennale; and continuing to the luminous cuts in “place for two persons” in the Panza di Biumo Collection (Varese, Italy), 1976; and in the “room with three doors of a room with three doors” in the Medici Villa of Artimino, 1976.

Besides the presence of a reflecting entrance—be it only as an opening on the level of one’s sight—there appears the invitation to a perceptive intimacy: the space in Venice is for one person and the one in Varese is for one or two persons. The definition of the number has a simple aim; solitary experience forces the person to pay greater attention to his/her inside and outside, without disturbance, while the double is specular: the individual is made aware of himself/herself as an other.

The phenomenon of the various luminosities—due to solar factors—is the affirmation of a further contextualizing in time, a flowing and moving, neither beginning nor ending, bearing witness that Nordman’s work does not retreat from the world in order to be understood in the abstract, but puts itself in its events. It polarizes itself on the “really existing” and makes the subjectivity gush out from it aimlessly.

Amongst the “natural beauty” of the city there are the buildings built for important public reasons, with cyclopean doors and walls, in thick cement, in a distinctive sign of a monumental architecture. These constructions—churches, banks and museums, depending on the rite practiced—have a compact mass of volume which is superior to the necessary. Compared to common building there is a desired detachment due to criteria which are intimately connected to the ideology of the dominant culture. Therefore, similar symbolic architecture, when faced with an osmosis with the city, prefers the antithesis; it imposes itself as a sign of domination and superiority. To extoll its outside and remain there at length would mean, then, the exaltation of the “figure” and this brand of power. In 1979, on the occasion of the exhibition “Space as Support” at the University Art Museum, Nordman was invited to realize a work. She intervenes over all the expositive space in the Museum which includes permanent collections, temporary exhibitions and bookshop, for a period of time which, in one day (21st of June) runs from “half an hour before to half an hour after the presence of direct solar light.” Nordman: “the day chosen is the one in which the locale has the longest orientation to the sun (in 1979: June 21st). The room is the exhibition area of the Berkeley Museum, made up of two main ground floors and various levels of higher strata facing into the main room. These sub-rooms with works from various times and places on walls and floors are a part of the larger room, and are in open dialogue with the conditions of the emptied ground.” In it, “the two main floors are covered with a white surface. All electric lights are turned off. All skylights are uncovered of filters. Opposite ground floor door frames are open to passage and are spanned with filters in pairs of red, green, blue and one black.”8

After Rosenthal’s precise analytic essay on this work9, which follows its relation to symbolic architecture, one could attempt a synthetic interpretation which considers the Berkeley Museum a pyramid or a contemporary mastaba. These analogies are not lacking (all museums are made up of funeral cells and are erected in the name of the local Pharaoh) and the intervention by Nordman—more than luminous—one would assume as being “solar.” Referring to its complex symbology, the sun might signify energy as compared to death, life and the measure of things and space. Such a metaphoric ceremony would reduce the museum to an archeological monument, where the vitality would reside not so much in the ashes on display but in the cycle of events—that is, in its “calendar.”

Even the incident and the incidence of the opening of an art exhibition form part of an act of both natural and artificial existence. For this reason, against the idea of installing object and artifact inside, Nordman proposes in 1973, at Newport Museum, a “Negative Light Extension” which documents the temporalization of natural and artificial existence. A triangular concave volume is constructed in a portal of the museum, in a side road to the building. The angle of incidence of the triangle is determined by the solar angle at 12:30 PM on the 28th of February 1973, the opening date of the group exhibition to which Nordman had been invited. The conditions of the light, from dawn until sunset, alter the piece’s presence. This work is different from the previous ones in that it applied a process of esthetic occupation of a public boundary—the street frequented by everyone, at every hour of the day. Nordman’s participation is, then, tied to the open space where the artistic property is shared—physically and culturally—by anyone. Moreover, its open legibility places a hierarchical sequence between primary and secondary space: in a culture of equality these don’t exist and, even less are they equivalent. If we are interested in equality—if only as utopian thought—it is to be looked for. To try to render it effective means using a strategy which equalizes the social signs—therefore also art. Yet art continues to underline and to live out the separation and the difference which emerges from places that are appointed for its existence (museums, galleries, alternative spaces, etc.). In order to be equal, art will have to offer itself without insignia, that is, without pedestal or container cut out from the quotidian real.

And where is “judgment” and “hierarchy” not posed? Before one would have replied “in nature” but now—because of the considerations posed at the beginning of this text—one shall have to reply “in the city.” A fragmentation is posed: each vitality is equal to another, therefore any idea and action exists in direct “natural” form, immediately in unsublimated reality. The city is essentially unchangeable, despite those who still believe in hierarchies; the primary and the secondary—like everything else in the city—are equivalent. In addition, in a society in which everything is merchandise—also art—why not work in the space which includes merchandise: the city? From 1973 on, Maria Nordman has placed her interventions in the zones of exchange—of living and working—of the cities she visited or lived in, like Kassel, Genoa and Venice, California. She chooses a room, among other shops and rooms, and configures it according to her spatial perception. In Via di Porta Soprana in Genoa in 1976, as in Washington and Beethoven in Los Angeles, in 1979, the installation is carried out in a zone of the urban environment: she opens next to a café or a tool shop, a barber or a tailor.

While the spaces of Varese and Venice are “islands” in the archipelago of the collection and exhibition of art, where the presence is dephased in time and space, Porta Soprana and Washington and Beethoven offer themselves as territories open to all the social and temporal components. First of all, in being open on the street twenty four hours a day, they put themselves in reciprocal integration with the community. They are available to the innumerable perceptive facets which reoccur in the different cultural areas.

This openness is obtained by Nordman by applying experiences which derive from a prolonged study of the reaction of the organized community to the presence of a traveller come from a far-off country. So in the medieval seaport of Genoa, the attitude towards living the relationship between internal and external, space on the edge, is resolved with the abolition of the door.

By this process it is possible to individuate, for each city, distinct characteristics of installation where the various social characteristics can survive and live with features and habits which are different among themselves, although homogeneous. In this sense, the place tries to make a dialogue with the “intermediate instances” which connect the social group in which it is located. By way of difference to the frequenters of the artistic context, here the group is not compact, neither is it stable, but it is casual, unpredictable and intersocial. It is, rather, an agglomerate of individuals tied by the neighborhood. Contemporaneously, as against the space of the museums and of the collections, the neighboring environment does not regard art but something else. It is, then, the neighborhood which causes a different linguistic and participatory relationship. It is no longer that of the isolated datum, but of a social configuration which—at Kassel, Genoa and in Venice, California—covers the economic, political community and visual interchanges. One knows that the contents of perception differ from one social stratum to another: in the “higher” strata the environment is perceived on the basis of features which are less important from a functional point of view and its global sensitive aspect is neglected; while in the “other” strata participation is more effective and personal10. Since Nordman is increasingly more interested in reaching an equalization, her interest seems to shift itself increasingly more towards the latter, where the relationship does not reach a degree of sublimation but of vulgar experience (vulgar from the Latin, vulgus, common people). But to arrive at a broadening of the vulgar experience it will be necessary to increase the number of the participants and, for this end, it will prove necessary to further reduce the perceptive impediments. In order to obtain this, one will have to carry out a further bringing down to zero: eliminating the wall membrane and the entrance, which already participate in an extremely complex idea of property and of architecture—to arrive at an architecture which is more “natural.” This moment lies in the acceptance of architecture as the measuring and spacing of the land and of the territory. “It is not in fact,” as Gregotti acutely states, “the hut, the tent, the cave but the recognition of the land as constituting, in a certain sense, the first act of architecture. Not the fact of placing one stone upon another but the placing the stone on the land, thus initiating the sign of the presence, of the discovery and of the identity of the place. The human being designs a determined place in relationship to the preexistent unknown natural world. . . . The origins of architecture are confused in the frame of the physical construction of manufactured objects and instruments by means of which we are made aware of the possession by the human being over nature.”11

Since 1978 Nordman has started to propose and realize “open places” in cities. In Genoa in 1979 she places crushed stone and white marble chips which form a square. It is:

a place open to any person
a place open to any person and any condition of light and sound
a place open to any person and any condition of light and sound for 24 hours from dawn to dawn on an unused unnamed ground surrounded on four sides by Salita Re Magi, Vico dei Tre Re Magi, Vico San Donato and Stradone Sant’Agostino, white marble chips 4 x 4 meters oriented to the four directions.
12

The prominence is no longer attributed to the individualness of the single building but to the particular configuration of the city. The living sense derives from the planimetrical location with respect to the land and to the urban territory, and is perceived according to the “street morphology”—another detail to add to Nordman’s work. The acquisition, sensorial and optical, of the square will vary because of the street position which passes from public sphere to semi private, that is, from the principal road which, open at both ends, crosses the city and connects the different quarters; to the alley which inserts itself in a principal or secondary road and can be a cul-de-sac. Following their degree of width and volume, the typology varies and with it the experience of the architecture mutates.

This sort of “environmental solidarity” also feels the effects of the crises and political-social transformations of the city which are reflected in its urban modifications. Therefore, the rubble of Santa Maria di Castello in Genoa and the old public park of Düsseldorf become “natural” landscapes where Nordman’s architectures are located. But, in respect to ancient and modern buildings, these with their “absence” place themselves as “cracks” in the city. As open fissures through which light, the sun and the rain enter, where art, to once again quote Adorno, “refers itself to nature understood only as manifestation, never as work material and reproduction of the city, less than ever as subsoil of science.”13

Germano Celant is an Italian an critic and a contributing editor to this magazine.

Translated by Howard Rodger Maclean

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NOTES

1. Adorno, Theodor, Asthetische Theorie, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 1970.

2. Ibid.

3. All Maria Nordman’s notations about the work are in the present tense. The dates given are the dates that the conditions were realized.

4. The term “work,” writes Nordman, is intended for the context of migration of a person present, who chooses or produces (working at) an action, that could change with changes in the person’s time and place. Nordman, Unpublished Notes, Santa Monica, 1979.

5. Banham, Rainer, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Penguin Books, London, 1971.

6. Hal Glicksman, real fellow-traveller since the beginnings of California environmental research, describes it thus: “what I liked about it (I know you do not like the word illusion) was a different feeling of a form or an amount of space existing behind a sheet of light that made a physical presence out of an amount of air”; while Barbara Haskell affirms:“ It was as one could step into the Rothko painting and be surrounded by that kind of environment. . . . I think also that the piece is more illusive in that nothing is really defined. Your mind doesn’t look into rigid categories. Because its a state of knowing—you are sort of sent back into your own experience and back into yourself.” Haskell, Barbara, and Glicksman, Hal, Interview, in “Maria Nordman” catalogue, University of California, Irvine, September 1973.

7. Among the fragments which become part of the experience of the work, Nordman includes documents, photographs, and writings. Therefore, when mention is made of a photograph it is a detail extracted from the whole.

8. Nordman, Maria, Unpublished Notes, Santa Monica, 1979.

9. Mark Rosenthal’s essay in the exhibition catalogue Space as Support, University Art Museum, Berkeley, 1980.

10. M. Fried & P. Gleicher. “Some Sources of Residential Satisfaction in an Urban Slum,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 1961, pp. 305–315.

11. Gregotti, Vittorio, “Il territoria dell’architettura,” Vision 67, New York, 1967.

12. Nordman, Maria, “Uno spazio aperto a tutti,” Saman no. 17, March/April, Genoa, 1979.

13. Adorno, Theodor, op. cit.